Negative Space

When I first got involved in organized skepticism and movement atheism I was very excited and rather intimidated. I was at a loss for words. I was pure squee.

I was so thrilled to be invited to participate in this blog with so many women I looked up to and just as thrilled to be invited to speak on stage at events. But I had terrible anxiety about not being smart enough or good enough or witty enough. How could I possible measure up? I knew that public speaking certainly wasn’t one of my strengths but I also knew that if you are given an opportunity you should try to make the best of it. So whenever I was in a position where I had a mic in my hand I would be completely honest and encourage the people in the audience, especially the other artists in the room, to use whatever skill they had to get involved and to help make the skeptic movement a better place. I would point out that I was not a public speaker, an academic or a scientist. Nor was I even really a writer when I first joined the Skepchick network. I was a visual artist and the skills of an artist was the only arsenal I had access to. So I would tell people in the audiences that I spoke to and to the people I would meet that even if you didn’t have a particular skill, you could still get involved. I was proof. I used to joke that heck, we even need skeptical cookies. So if you don’t think you have anything to offer just join a meet-up group and bring cookies, you will be doing your part to make this movement stronger and more welcoming.

Over the years I know that I encouraged some really great people to get involved in this community via event grants. I watched those people make friends and move on to do great things. I know that my Surly-Ramics art project has helped (and continues to help) by fundraising for secular charities and other events. I like to think that my fumbled words on stages and from behind my table at events has helped to carve out spaces for others, like me, to see that there is a rich world of non-belief out there and that you can help to make it grow.

It is ok to not believe. You don’t need a God to be good. Science and facts matter. Sharing truth helps.

But things have changed a lot for me over the years since I first joined this blog. And the way I look at the community is forever altered by the abuses and harassment I have witnessed first hand for a solid two years now. I’ll be honest, I’ve lost some enthusiasm. As I type this, I’m getting harassed on twitter by people who are within the skeptic/atheist community. Still. It never stops. Today they are making fun of the painting that I will link below. So I’m not sure I would recommend bringing cookies to a random meet-up group anymore. I still say join a group, but be sure to investigate it first and maybe stash a few cookies for yourself for later when you get home.

I still think the secular movement is very important. I think encouraging an atheist world view can help make the world a better, safer, more rational place. At least I hope. I think the tools of skepticism can really help a lot of people avoid scams and do important things like find better health care solutions. At least I hope. I just think that we have failed in some of our spaces and that we as a community can and should do better to be welcoming, compassionate and in general, more positive in our attempts at outreach. And that more people need to decide that we should do better and then actually do something about it. This I know.

But lately I’m at a loss for words as to how to help.

So I have decided to do what I do at times like this. I have decided to show in paint what I can’t find words to describe.

Over the next few months I am returning to my roots. I am retreating into the art-cave. I am going to talk less and make and post more art, both here and on Mad Art Lab. Think of it as my tray of cookies and you are all invited to my virtual meeting. I cook the vegan chocolate chip ones from scratch.

I hope that you will find your own meaning in the images and other projects I plan on posting. Feel free to interpret them as you wish. What I see when I paint doesn’t need to be what you see when you look at the finished product so please feel free to attach your own meaning.

My first painting in this series is called, Negative Space. It is 4ft high by 5ft wide and acrylic on canvas. It is about the skeptic and atheist community.

Click the image to embiggen on Flickr.

Negative Space by AMy Davis Roth

Feel free to discuss below and feel free to make the world a better place.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. I find that to be a perfectly cromulent painting.

    On a serious note, I’m lucky in the secular communities I find myself in where inclusiveness is important and the need for social justice is understood and keenly felt. It also helps that I don’t have a prominent target affixed to my back like you folks. Despite the awfulness leading to this, I am looking forward to your output of new work!

  2. Way to be Amy! I’m really inspired by your courage to put yourself and your art out there for the world. I like to make art, but I don’t feel that I’m very good at it, so I definitely don’t make as much as I would like to. And I struggle to believe the friends and family who encourage and praise my work, but I’ll keep trying. I love your ceramics and am totally impressed by your mad painting skills.

  3. The painting they are making fun of is the one at the bottom of this post? WTF??!! Have they now added “art snob” to their long list of talents?

    To be honest, other than occasional bursts of rage, mostly what I feel about these people is quite simple. I have come to pity them. They have created a world for themselves that is based around a paranoid, Pavlovian-like hatred for their perceived “enemies” and anything their “enemies” do. What a truly sad world in which to live. Everything that makes you happy makes them angry. It’s like they’re standing under a blue sky in a field full of flowers, and all they can see or smell is the dog shit they imagine is in the grass. What pathetic creatures!

  4. Amy, I am sad that you will be writing less cos I always enjoy your posts.
    But I totally understand why and for you to make more of your art is a good thing. (I will never ever see a Venn diagram again without thinking of you and giggling).

    I have a request though. People are putting up anti water fluoridation posters all over the place. I wondered if you or the Mad Art Lab folks could create a sticker that could be added to stuff like that as a negative comment to show that it is anti-scientific humbug. I was kind of thinking something similar to a Darwin fish, modified to look sad, with a slogan like “science is sad” or “science disagrees” or”nonscience”

    What do you think? I know some of you are dead against poster modification, but it is a long and proud tradition here.

      1. Thanks, Amy. It doesn’t have to be a Darwin Fish, I’m sure you guys could come up with something brilliant. Another thought was angry Albert Einstein going “WTF is this shit?”.

  5. Amy, you’ve always been one of the most welcoming people in the atheist/skeptic movement to me, and I really appreciate it. I know the feelings though of just being deflated by the haters. I’m hoping that they finally decide to get lives, but short of that, at least I know I have good friends who are there for me in this movement.

    I hope working on art for a while makes things a little easier for you, Amy.

  6. There are so many scientists in this business that I might be so bold as to say that bringing something else along to the picnic is even better. Without much effort at all I can name a handful of other astrophysics-types currently active in the skeptic-atheio-sphere who all have longer CVs and probably much better public speaking chops than I do. It’s been a struggle to figure out what I can contribute to the community that isn’t completely redundant (although, to be honest, keeping my head above water until I finish grad school is more than enough at the moment). So I think what I think I’m trying to say is that it’s totally awesome that you’ve taken an inventory of what you know and love that you’re most confident of and using that to do something that stands to benefit a lot of people.

  7. That is quite a painting! (In both sense of the word “painting.”)

    It seems straightforward, but I don’t know how to put what it’s about into words.
    (Assuming I haven’t missed the point entirely.)

    Cf. Isadore Duncan’s line “if I could say it, I wouldn’t need to dance it.”

  8. I like the painting. It’s quite eloquent, though as you said, my reading may not be the same as what you where thinking when you painted it. I’m really looking forward to seeing more, and getting to hear what you have to say however you choose to express it.

  9. I choose to see it as the person (you?) not painting yourself into a corner, but painting yourself out of a corner.

    When I was about 4, I had a Little Golden Book about Santa preparing for Christmas. One of the pages had a picture of the elves constructing presents in the workshop. One of them was making a checkerboard by painting a square of wood with checkered paint. The can of paint had the red and black checker pattern on the front, the paint in the can was checkered, the paint on the brush was checkered, and as the elf pulled the brush across the board, the checkerboard pattern emerged behind it. Even as a 4 year old, I understood enough about entropy to love the delicious absurdity of it.

    So I’m seeing the picture as you painting (and creating) the universe around you with magic paint that comes off the brush in appropriate patterns.

    At the same time, the other way around, you are freeing your self from the confining room by painting it our of existence. Cool, either way!

    All the best.

  10. Amy, I had a blast meeting you at WS2. I really enjoyed being able to pick out three pendants for my three kids–more fun that JM Hecht helped choose one–though I was distracted and tongue-tied myself by what I was experiencing over all. Your eyes and your body language reveal a depth and sophistication you may not feel or glibly display.

    Twitteridiots be damned. I would damn them to hell with curses and spit if such a place existed–where is the “Eject Now” button?

    The painting is awesome. I was at first sad by it in spite of the smiling face, positive posture, and bright colors. I don’t like to see anyone cornered. But the strength of erasing your enclosure is quite positive and doing it with negative space! Artists tend to see the negative space in images. There is tremendous information there. In silence, space, and in-betweenness. Philosophically it’s very deconstructive and reminiscent of what Derrida called female as opposite of anthropocentrism, male projection

    I can also see it as emblematic of female skeptics, having been cornered unfairly they actively remove the constraint. Contrary to the earthy, grounding, body-centerdness of Abrahamic religions the removal to air allows one to fly. The brown of the floor contrasted to the Lime green shades doesn’t seem like growth or forest but instead changes the box to freedom–lime is the color of fruit rather than leaves. Without the corner she wouldn’t be free to erase, consume the constraint and create her own destiny, a room of her own. The growth is in the brush. It’s a beginning. When she’s done she can create what she will, or just fly.

    I like it so much I am printing out a copy to put on the refrigerator to see what the fam thinks–they have no text or context to reconsider.

    Best and much love–can one say that safely these days??

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